The seventeenth- to the mid-nineteenth century paintings in “The Conversation Piece,” which are from the royal collection, show the fashionable at their ease, interacting with apparent naturalness. They are not formal portraits emphasizing rank and importance but the relaxed face of the great and sometimes good: “Look, we are just like you, if rather better.” The fashionably informal thus depicted range from wealthy but cheerful seventeenth-century Dutch merchants playing at being aristocrats to Johan Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771–2, which depicts them pretending to be artists. All of the Academicians are there, grouped around a miserable scrawny nude male model, his privates tactfully hidden behind a...


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